Some now urge physicians to screen teens for signs of cyberbullying

By MDLinx staff | Fact-checked by MDLinx staff
Published March 3, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Some physicians have recently suggested that primary care doctors should screen teens for cyberbullying during visits.

  • Cyberbullying is bullying that happens online and impacts about 16 percent of high school students.

Should primary physicians be responsible for screening teens for cyberbullying? A new article in Primary Care Clinical Office Practice calls for just that, but not all physicians agree. 

Doctors from Florida Atlantic University’s Schmidt College of Medicine are urging physicians, mainly those who treat teens, to ask their patients if they are experiencing mood shifts, eating disorders, trouble at school both socially and academically, tiredness, and other symptoms as a way to try and pinpoint if a patient is the victim of cyberbullying.[] 

Cyberbullying is described as bullying that takes place through social media, texts, gaming consuls, and apps. Essentially, if the bullying occurs through the internet, that could be considered cyberbullying.[] 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 6 high school students reports being a victim of cyberbullying.[] 

“It is staggering that only 23 percent of students who were cyberbullied reported it to an adult at their school, which shows that many incidences go unreported. This is another crucial reason why we need to screen patients as well as educate parents,”  says  Allison M. Holley, M.D., corresponding author and an assistant professor of family medicine in FAU’s Schmidt College of Medicine, in a release.

“A screening tool of the providers’ choice should be worked into the workflow of pediatric visits to ensure that screening is consistently done and results are addressed in a timely manner,” she continued. 

There are existing tools physicians can use during the screening, including: 

However, not all physicians agree that screening for cyberbullying should fall on the shoulders of physicians. Mainly because it is not practical and young adults aren’t always forthcoming. 

“Child well-care visits are time-limited and adolescents are often hesitant to open up to their doctors whom they may view as authority figures rather than confidantes or advocates,” Naomi Bishop, M.D., told Mdlinx

Instead, Bishop recommends using “teen allies” to help adolescents open up in a more informal setting than the pediatrician's office.  

“Helping them find a welcoming and supportive peer group may provide positive reinforcement and lessen the sting of being bullied,” says Bishop. 

Holley suggests that physicians ask patients directly if they have been the victim of bullying while online or if they know someone who has to get the conversation going, and some doctors do just that. 

“I think health professionals should always ask about mood, work or school performance, social support, home life, and relationships in an effort to see if any bullying is occurring and if so, how it is affecting the individual,” Kristen Fuller, M.D. told Mdlinx. “I also believe that health professionals should directly ask teenagers about bullying and if they have experienced or been in association with any sort of bully.” 

What can physicians tell parents? 

One thing is clear, parents must get involved and set positive examples to help curb cyberbullying.

“Parents also must teach their children about appropriate online behavior, set boundaries, and give clear guidelines with appropriate consequences for rule-breaking,” says Holley, M.D., in a release.

You should remind worried parents that they are probably doing better than they think when dealing with online bullies. While only 40 percent of teens say that teachers are doing a good job curbing online harassment, more than 65 percent of teens say their parents are positively addressing online bullying, according to 2022 data from Pew Research Center.[]

“Trying to restrict access to social media is unrealistic unless a parent wants to shadow their child 24/7,” says Bishop. “Teaching children to ignore or not let bullying affect them is also unlikely to be effective.”

“Until we as adults begin to model a culture of tolerance and respect for one another, our children will continue to perpetuate this behavior.”

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